I have a million questions in my head right now regarding the atonement and the fall. I’m trying to understand why any was necessary? So Adam ate the fruit, and we make mistakes, but why did the Savior have to atone for all that? Why can’t we do it ourselves? And why can’t Heavenly Father just wipe us clean at the end and let us back home again? If one of my children were hurt, dirty and sad, I’d give them a bath, a plaster and a hug. I wouldn’t get someone else to do it.
Thanks for your thoughtful question. My answer will be two-fold. First an explanation that I hope will be helpful, and second a personal experience and admonition.
Metaphorically, I think of it the atonement as “currency.” If you need to repay a debt, you need to repay it in the legal tender that is accepted by your creditor. If the debt is owed in dollars, it won’t be acceptable to the creditor to pay it back in Euros unless some alternate arrangement is made.
In the case of paying for our sins, we have no currency that is valid in heaven. We could give everything we have and it is not sufficient to pay the debt we owe for our sins. The penalty for defaulting on our debt is physical death and eternal separation from God.
Because Jesus had no sins of his own, he could offer his own life as payment for each of us. Only his life–the life of a perfect, sinless soul–was acceptable currency. Only Jesus could pay the debt. Only he could resurrect his own body and break the bands of physical death. Only he could rise and enter back into God’s presence without need of a Redeemer. He is the only one of us who had never incurred any debt in terms of obedience to the commandments. He was perfectly obedient in all things.
The less intuitive part comes in how the scales of justice require the payment for transgression of divine law. We don’t understand how that works, but that is somehow a factor. God is just. If he were not, he would cease to be God. To be totally just, a punishment must always be affixed to sin. The atonement balances the books. It makes things right in eternity somehow. We talk of “karma” sometimes, but I think it’s based on a true principle. What goes around, comes around. Unless something is done with the negative consequences of sin, they remain until they are expunged by an an infinite and eternal sacrifice. That’s exactly what Jesus did for us.
Second, my experience and admonition. Once years ago, in answer to a prayer, the Spirit directed me to learn about the Atonement. I thought this was odd since I had been learning about the Atonement since Primary, and had taught the principle both on my mission and in other callings. But I tried. I looked up all the scriptures I could find on it. The Book of Mormon does as good a job of explaining it as anything can. I read talks from the Ensign, and some materials by others. At the end of my study I was perplexed. I didn’t feel like I had really learned anything new.
So I went back to my knees and I explained all this to Heavenly Father, then I said, “What would Thou have me understand about the Atonement?” Then the Spirit taught me and it was life-changing. My admonition to you is to do the same thing. Search out everything you can about the Atonement. Asking me is a good start, but don’t stop there. Read everything you can find, ask people you respect and then after you have done everything you can, pray about it and ask Heavenly Father to teach you what HE wants you to know. You won’t regret it.